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An interview with Professor Rodney Barker. “The violence is affecting working class neighborhoods, destroying the very places people in need depend on.”

The unrest in London has magnified on a larger scale problems endemic to British society: class privilege, poverty, and violence. Rodney Barker, professor of Government at the London School of Economics and a social and political commentator, discusses the situation.

Professor Barker, how important are material conditions for those who are propagating the violence? The fact that they are shut out of the social and political system?

Very important, without a doubt. I don’t know if gangs have anything to do with this. Personally I would rule that out. It’s worth noting that the violence is definitely organized. And it certainly has something to do with social exclusion. We’re seeing this curious phenomenon where whole groups of people, or better yet layers of the community, that are—or perceive themselves to be—marginalized socially, are nonetheless totally connected technologically. These aren’t political protests in the conventional sense but they are in a way well coordinated. People are using cell phones, Twitter, and the internet to exchange information in real time. But I wouldn’t call it a revolt. There aren’t enough people involved to call it a revolt. They don’t have anything to do, for instance, with the mass political uprisings that took place in Greece and in Egypt, that are taking place now in Syria. But they pose a serious problem just the same for the rest of the community in which they are happening. And for the government too. For the community, because obviously they’re destroying buildings, stores, and busses, as well as making it difficult for schools, hospitals, and churches to do business, and for other people in the community to access these places. People in the area rely on these services. They’re setting fire to apartment buildings where their neighbors live…

As if these places didn’t belong to them too…

Exactly. Let’s leave the police out of it for the moment—these people are burning down their own homes. As if all of a sudden they belonged to the enemy. They don’t make any distinction between looting and destroying. That’s the biggest problem, the most worrying. As we were saying, the violence is a big problem for the Cameron government too, because it’s certainly motivated by opposition to his policies, the cuts in social services, healthcare, libraries—services on which the poorest members of society, the most excluded, the neediest, most depend. But that’s the context, not the spark. The spark that set them off, let’s remember, was the man who died last Thursday. These eruptions of violence have a lot in common with the riots in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 and 2007.

But why is the death of one person enough to unleash protests and devastation on this scale?

I don’t know, but that’s what happened. And in the particular situation in London, it’s interesting to see how the family, the victim’s relatives, reacted with complete composure and dignity. They denounced the violence right away and have condemned the violent actions of the past three nights. Still, deaths like this one create and reinforce a feeling of alienation already there in part for certain segments of society, who see the police, and social and political institutions, as the enemy.

What’s going to happen now?

I don’t know. Let’s see what happens over the next few nights. The police don’t seem to have developed an effective strategy for dealing with the situation.

They weren’t expecting that level of violence.

That’s true, but it’s not so much the intensity of the violence as how widespread it is.

Even Birmingham and Liverpool are experiencing similar episodes. Is that surprising, professor?

Not at all. Because the circumstances that have enabled this protest are the same in many large cities in the UK. It’s also worth noting, not so much the type of violence, which is pretty common in our cities, but how decentralized it is, and how quickly it spreads. This is an entirely new phenomenon. And that’s without a doubt because these people are so well connected technologically.

Luca Galassi
translated by Gary Cestaro